We here at Diesel Army aim to bring you a complete look inside the automotive industry. In this month’s “Lessons Learned” article, we sat down with one of the most popular, game-changing corporate image vehicle innovators, Shawn Williams of Street Concepts. Street Concepts has been redefining what a corporate image vehicle can be for the past 15 years. Odds are that you or someone you know has drooled over one of their creations at some point in time.
A Little Background
Williams stared out working for a company called Full Effects in the Inland Empire, California. They had a retail business modifying and customizing trucks. They, also, were building project vehicles for a variety of companies including, Ford Motor Company. One of the most influential projects during his entire time at Full Effects was the build of a Lincoln truck off an F150 chassis for the SEMA Show in 1998.
This was long before everyone started doing all the Cadillac conversions on pickups and before Lincoln had ever announced their Blackwood or done any trucks. “Essentially, we built the first Lincoln truck.” stated Williams. “With our relationship with Ford, it got up to the upper brass what we had done and Ford Motor Company asked us not to bring it to SEMA. We ended up bringing it to SEMA anyhow, but not displaying it. Instead we had it there only for a private showing to Ford executives.”
Shortly after Williams left Full Effects and started Street Concepts. Over the years, Williams has built hundreds of corporate image vehicles. His projects are routinely car show winners at not only local and national events, but at industry events like the SEMA Show. His projects have graced the pages of countless magazines, been featured in a number of movies and TV shows and some of his most iconic vehicles have been made into posters that kids stare at and dream about owning one day. Who knows how many kids have been influenced based on his work and are in the industry today because of it.
Williams and his team have, also, worked with a variety of shows over the years. The first show was Overhaulin’. “That was an amazing experience, working with Chip and the guys on the team who really knew their stuff. We did some of the really cool builds. I think we did one of the best cars they built with the Roadrunner project and probably one of the worst ones they did with the Honda Civic, probably should have never been aired. It was all fun and we had a blast doing it.”
Then it was onto a pilot called Fine Tuned with Tyson Beckford and from there, Hollywood was knocking on his door for cameo car appearances on Entourage, Fast and the Furious franchise, She Spies, Monster Garage, Fastlane, and a variety of music videos including Lindsay Lohan’s Herbie video. “It was truly an amazing experience to work on these shows and see your vehicles chosen to be highlighted or written into the script. It was really a high point in my career,” says Williams.
Street Concepts has built vehicles for pretty much every niche in the market, from affordable import cars to high-end luxury cars and has worked with a wide range of companies in the process. With that much experience, we had to find out what were some of the lessons that Williams learned over the years.
- Lesson 1: Go after what you want to do
- Lesson 2: Build your business when you can and be open minded
- Lesson 3: Your word is everything
- Lesson 4: Build relationships and stop looking for the hook up
- Lesson 5: Always plan to reinvent your business as necessary for the future
Lesson 1- “Go After What You Want to Do”
When Williams created Street Concepts, he did so with two separate intentions. On the one side of the business, Williams would come up with the concept for corporate image vehicles and built them. On the other side of the business, he would handle and manage events for companies. While these two sides played very nicely together, they were separate. He could handle fleets of vehicles that he didn’t build and he could, also, build vehicles and not show them.
The first client Street Concepts landed was Kenwood. They managed Kenwood’s DB Drag Fleet. This was a fleet of trucks and trailers that went to multiple stereo events and measured the decibels of the stereo systems; thus the definition DB drag racing. Williams managed their fleet of 5 trucks and all of their events. From there it evolved to beginning to build corporate image vehicles for them. The most notable was one of the first concepts, the 63′ convertible Cadillac. This was the car/project that really put Street Concepts on the map. This car quickly became one of the most recognizable and talked about vehicles in the industry and beyond.
On the image vehicle side of the business, Williams stayed true to himself. “When we started building our business, one thing that was key for us was to go after the projects and the vehicles we really wanted to do. If one of the OEMs had a new vehicle coming out and we had a vision for it, we were the first one in line making our pitch to get one,” Williams said. By sticking with things he was passionate about, he managed to always produce the best product he could.
“Life is about seizing opportunities and sometimes those opportunities happen and sometimes they don’t. You can look for them, look for them and look for them and they don’t (happen) and sometimes they will fall right into your lap. If you’re out there talking to people and working doing something you love to do. It will happen. Set your aspirations high and go for it. The worst they are going to say is No. And you never know when that one door is going to open and launch you and your career. Life is all about opportunities,” continues Williams.
Lesson 2– “Build your business when you can and be open minded”
After a few years and business really doing well, they had the most unusual knock on our door. “We were actually the first company Hyundai had contacted about building show vehicles for them when they decided to build cars for SEMA. Of course, being the red blooded American I am, I’m sure the guy from Hyundai had an idea of what he was walking into.
I’m sure he thought I would just dismiss him as not interested, but we take every client seriously. I wanted to listen to what they had to say, and we actually ended up forming a strong relationship with Hyundai as they were beginning to rebrand their company in the US. Everyone knows Hyundai has grown leaps and bounds in build quality and the types of vehicles they are delivering. So, when they first launched the Tiburon, it was one of the first vehicles we built for them. After Hyundai, we started doing a ton for Nissan. We have built vehicles for almost every manufacturer either directly or indirectly.”
Street Concepts really got involved in the import scene both building image vehicles and performing event management services as that market began to explode. Things really took off when the import scene got hot and the Hot Import Nights phenomenon hit. They managed a number of client’s image vehicles and event happenings at these shows. Things really got crazy to a whole new level when the “Fast and the Furious” craze hit causing the import market segment to really explode. They were managing booths for Kenwood, Valvoline, JC Whitney, etc. “If we saw and wanted it, we worked who we knew and what we knew to make it happen. Remember my philosophy…Life is all about seizing opportunities,” said Williams.
As the import market segment began to fizzle, every trend has its lifecycle, Williams moved into the hot rod market segment. “I’m not afraid to take on any kind of car as long as it has nuts, bolts and has wheels; we can figure it out. It was important to me to make sure that I never got pigeon holed as a tuner for a specific model. We wanted to make sure we were as broad as we could be while still delivering the best vehicle we could for our clients.”
Williams entered into the Hot Rod segment by doing several episodes of Overhaulin’ at Street Concepts’ shop in Huntington Beach, CA. They built several classic Mopars including: a ’71 Challenger, ’71 Cuda, ’70 Cuda Conv, ’69 Charger (General Lee replica) and thanks to successful projects with Oakley and industry relationships they ended up receiving project vehicles from Dodge when they were launching the SRT-4, and new platforms like the Dodge Durango, Charger, Magnum and other vehicles.
“In 2005 we were really on our way up, bringing 10 cars to the show, but it was 2006 that truly was our pinnacle year as far as SEMA Show project vehicle builds. We had Kia adding their name to the mix of clients. We brought 26 cars that year to SEMA. Even though that was almost three times the number of vehicles from the year before, we wanted to grasp the opportunities while they were available. We had at least one car in every vehicle manufacturer’s booth. On top of that, we had cars in various displays throughout the show. These vehicles included a ’71 Challenger, my HEMI powered General Lee, and many others. We had our hands in everything,” Williams said.
So, we asked Williams how he dealt with the growth of his business in what seemed like overnight. “There’s no manual for this stuff. I was literally doing everything by the seat of my pants. I will be the first one to stand up and say I am figuring it out as I go. I am passionate about what I am doing and wouldn’t want to do anything else. So I put all my effort and time and thoughts into the business. Business is fluid. You have to be focused enough on your goals and objectives but flexible enough at the same time to realize when something isn’t working and you need to adjust or redirect.
Lesson 3– “Your Word is Everything”
“My biggest claim and point of pride I stand on is my word. If I say I am going to deliver something, I am going to deliver it, come hell or high water. Whatever it takes! I really feel that I built my business off of my relationships with people and off the fact that I did what I said I was going to do. To be successful the first and most important thing is always, always, always, do what you say you’re going to do.
It’s not just about making money, it’s about delivering the best possible product you can for your client, doing what you say and building the relationships for the future. After all, I realized that I am Street Concepts. I’m the designer, it’s my vision, it’s my relationships with the vehicle manufacturers and the parts suppliers that make the projects happen, I have an incredibly talented team behind me starting with my graphic designer putting the vision on paper, followed by my team that could execute the vision.”
“Anyone who has built a car for SEMA will tell you the story, the ‘SEMA drama’. I literally lived in my shop for 3 and half weeks. I didn’t leave. I slept on my couch for 30 minutes here and 30 minutes there. The wife brought me clothes to the shop. Parts come in for the build the week of, your painter doesn’t anticipate enough time to get the job done, etc. It’s just the way it works. But we always pushed doing whatever it takes because I gave them my word to get them completed. That is just the job and how SEMA is.”
Lesson 4– “Build Relationships and Stop Looking For The Hook Up”
“Everyone starting out in automotive, especially in project vehicle building is looking for the hook up. They think oh, I can get this free or that free and nothing in life is free. EVER! Always be sure you are delivering a sound proposal and plan to maximize exposure for the companies you are looking to promote. Getting into this business looking for “free” products for your daily driver is one of the biggest mistakes and misconceptions I have seen and nothing will make companies start questioning your intentions and credibility quicker,” says Williams.
“It is a relationship based business. If you’re not good at building relationships then it’s not going to work. If you’re sitting on the couch right now and are playing Call of Duty and trying to figure out how to get into this…Go to work for someone. Get into the industry, somehow, someway and learn. There are plenty of places to get hired if you have the desire to learn and listen. The key is you have to be willing! Pay attention to the details. The details are crucial in every part of this business,” advocates Williams.
Lesson 5– “Always Plan To Reinvent Your Business As Necessary For The Future”
“When 2008 hit and the economy tanked we took a hard hit. As you know we were considered a marketing expense to most of these manufacturers and when they had to start cutting budgets, marketing was the first place they started. So, I tried to redirect my company a bit and we picked up VeilSide’s Premier body kits out of Japan for Bentley, Lamborghini, Ferrari and stuff like that. I had wanted to get into the exotic market and play in that arena. We positioned ourselves as one of the premier US distributors for the product. We bought a Bentley GT Speed and built it.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough and we had to downsize the shop twice just trying to stay afloat. I struggled reinventing my business and I got a little burnt out. One of the main problems we began to face is the guys who entered the market who would do everything cheaper and even free. I know guys out there who will do the entire project for free just to get their name out. You can’t compete with that. I have a family to feed and food to put on the table and free doesn’t make that happen.
In 2012, Williams redirected his company again by getting involved with a new startup company called RunSure. Williams had the following to say about this move. “RunSure is an advanced tire sealant, crumb rubber based product aimed at the commercial trucking industry, large fleets and heavy equipment. RunSure can show a true Return On Investment (ROI) to customers and it has multiple benefits to tires. It’s also a ‘green’ product that uses recycled tires, is nontoxic and has had a lot of success in Australia. So, we launched RunSure here in the US. We do all of the marketing, branding strategy, sales etc. This has been our main focus since April of 2012.” Street Concepts still builds show vehicles and actually had a 2013 Ford Raptor to promote RunSure on display at this year’s SEMA Show.
Final Words Of Advice
We asked Shawn what his biggest mistake was in running his company that our readers can learn from. “My biggest mistake was not handling the business end of my business from the start. Another way to look at this is that I didn’t know enough of how to handle the business end of the business; taxes, budgeting, payroll, credit and general bookkeeping. This is a pretty common problem in many automotive based small businesses.
We are all car guys, and will do whatever it takes to get the cars built, but not having a strong business adviser or the experience needed just makes it harder than it has to be to keep your business running smoothly. If you’re a business owner and you don’t know how much money is in your account when you wake up each morning, then you’re not serious about running your business. You need to be careful not to get caught up in the daily grind and start paying attention to the business end of the business.”